Squad goals: Fourth consecutive WSL title will be triumph for winning machine Hayes has built at Chelsea

The Blues may not have played the most attractive, entertaining football this term but it has been no less effective as they’re in pole position to win another championship on the final day of the season tomorrow — and every member of the formidable 23-player unit has been called upon to play their part, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.

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Tomorrow afternoon, Reading will have the opportunity to spring the biggest final-day upset the WSL has ever seen. Chelsea have become Schrodinger’s title winners in the past week, so certain is everyone that they will complete the job. If they do, they will win a fourth consecutive WSL title, setting a record points tally in the process.

Yet, outside of Kingsmeadow, the mood has been one more of weary resignation than one of rousing excitement. The speed with which the absence of talented attackers like Fran Kirby and Pernille Harder has been referenced demonstrates how this title push from Chelsea has left many underwhelmed. Picks for ‘Manager of the Year’ have instead centred around Carla Ward for the way she has lifted Aston Villa to a fifth-placed finish or Jonas Eidevall, who looks to have secured Arsenal Champions League football despite an appalling injury record.

It is understandable that in the face of Chelsea and Emma Hayes winning yet another WSL title, there is a clamour for some new storylines. It is boring for the same team to relentlessly win everything, and whilst clearly the WSL is more competitive than some European leagues, if the Blues do win tomorrow, there will have been a different winner of the Liga F in Spain as there has been of the WSL in England.

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There also has been the suggestion that Chelsea have not been very good. At points the football has certainly prioritised winning over stylistic niceties, but that has long been true of Hayes. Last season was probably Chelsea’s most comprehensive ever in terms of quality as they won the domestic treble and reached the UWCL final with a front three of Sam Kerr, Kirby and Harder. Their only loss came against Brighton as they picked up 12 points against the rest of the top four.

But this season, Chelsea have picked up 13 points against the rest of the top four who, with Manchester United’s development, are arguably now stronger. At points the football has not been great but Harder bundling in an equaliser via Lotte Wubben-Moy back in 2020 was not exactly the pinnacle of the game either.

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On the surface, Chelsea have also lacked a standout player, something which always helps in constructing grand narratives of a season. Kerr’s goalscoring record in the WSL has been mediocre by her standards — although she is only two off last season’s tally across all competitions. Guro Reiten is the player who has actually stood out for Chelsea. With eight goals and 10 assists in the league, the highest she has ever managed in an English season, she is behind only Bunny Shaw and Rachel Daly in terms of goal contributions.

But Chelsea have not needed one person to dominate the headlines because it is the team that have carried them to this point of the season. This year has been the pinnacle of Hayes’ project in terms of squad-building, as opposed to having technically-gifted individuals shine.

Chelsea have made 30 more changes to their starting XI than any other side in the WSL, with 16 different goal scorers — again more than any other side. Only one member of their senior squad (Alsu Abdullina) of 23 has not started a league game this year and no one has played more than 17 full 90s. By contrast, nine members of Manchester United’s squad have played that many minutes or more.

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Hayes has long had a recruitment policy that has enabled her to rely on a full squad and have players who are ready to step up in periods of absence. It is the same policy which has seen Chelsea confirm the signing of Sjoeke Nusken before the season is out, with Ashley Lawrence and Catarina Macario reported to be following her through the door. A policy that has already gone some way to make the exits of Magda Eriksson and Harder feel like an incidental memory, rather than a destabilising force.

When this period of time is reflected upon, Chelsea will be seen as having been hugely dominant. History erases the small margins, and the perceived different levels will be elided in the face of a series of trophies.

It might not have been the most impressive session in terms of the football that was played, or the number of goals that one player managed to score. But come tomorrow afternoon, if there are blue ribbons hanging from the WSL trophy once again, it will be an outcome that might actually be the most quintessential distillation of Hayes’ Chelsea project yet. Whoever you are, wherever you play, when you step onto the pitch for Chelsea, you win no matter what.

Follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph

Our journalism is supported by Foudys as part of its commitment to backing female and non-binary football writers.

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